If you’ve ever picked out an Einstürzende Neubauten album and headed to the front counter in mortal trepidation of not being able to keep up your end of the conversation with the checkout clerk, Other Music will give you some serious PTSD. The hotly anticipated documentary, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week and screens again Sunday, takes us right back into the beloved indie record store’s cramped aisles for a bittersweet look at its final days.
When its Kickstarter launched nearly two years ago, it was easy to imagine this film using Other as a starting point for a commentary on the state of music industry, or the corporatization and gentrification of New York City. After all, news of the store’s closing after 20 years was met with mournful tweets like the one from punk historian Legs McNeil: “GOODBYE NYC… OTHER MUSIC IS CLOSING!” Instead of getting too deep into all of that, Other Music is mostly a love letter to the Noho shop and its place in the heart of New Yorkers. It’s the sort of sentimentality you’d expect from directors Rob Hatch-Miller, a former Other employee, and Puloma Basu, a longtime customer, who say their ties with Other were responsible for their meeting, marriage, and filmmaking partnership.
Over the course of interviews with owners Chris Vanderloo and Josh Madell, former staffers, and celebrity customers such as Jason Schwartzman, Regina Spektor, Tunde Adebimpe of TV and the Radio, and Matt Berninger of The National, it’s clear that, as one former staffer points out, Other “wasn’t just a record store, it was definitely like a community center.” During the store’s final days, everyone from James Chance to Benicio del Torro come walking (or Rollerblading) in. Incognito in a baseball cap and shades, del Torro describes the “religious experience, a little bit, of coming here and just picking up new sounds.”
It’s clear del Torro had come to trust the clerks’ tastes, and their on-camera interaction with customers— e.g. a preppie-looking kid who asks for “something like Lou Reed, but that I’ve never heard of”— shows how passionate they were about pushing obscure and challenging music. Sometimes– as was the case for Beans, from Antipop Consortium– it was the music they made. “He was the only staff member I think we ever had who would just relentlessly suggest his own music,” says co-owner Josh Madell.
Beans wasn’t the only employee who could be found on Other’s shelves. Dave Portner and Noah Lennox started Animal Collective while working in the mailroom, and the band had some of its earliest shows in the store. (The doc features fun but sadly scant footage from in-stores by acts like Apples in Stereo, St. Vincent, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Mogwai, and Conor Oberst. not to mention a particularly bizarre performance by Gary Wilson.) Portner, who remembers a clerk playing Diamanda Galas in order to clear the store at closing time, eventually got fired because, in Madell’s words, “he was not a great mail-order supervisor.”
Again, Other Music avoids proselytizing about Spotify, Amazon, and all the rest, but it does briefly touch on Other’s attempt to keep pace with the modern marketplace by launching an online MP3 store. It was the first place where Vampire Weekend’s music was available digitally, according to band member Ezra Koenig. But it failed to take off and was eventually shut down, to the dismay of one VIP customer. Ex-staffer Gerald Hammill remembers the email from Lou Reed’s manager: “Lou Reed is despondent. He is so depressed and he wants to know where he’s going to be able to download the music from now.”
You might expect this film to indulge in a nostalgia for a bygone New York, complete with the requisite b-roll footage of CBGBs and other bygone record stores like Bleecker Bob’s. It doesn’t really do that either, though at one point Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields stands outside of Other and laments the fact that what used to be the second floor of Tower Records, across the street, is now a Blink Fitness. “What is going to be in this neighborhood without Other Music to anchor it?” he asks. “So Broadway is shoe stores, that’s it? Is New York going to be only a place where you go to buy clothing?”
Toward the end of the film, as Other’s shelves start emptying and everything is eventually broken down and tossed into a rubbish removal truck, the human drama of the store’s closure becomes very real, and the stiff upper lip that Madell and Vanderloo have been maintaining for the sake of their longtime employees finally starts to crack.
At the film’s premiere at Cinema Village East, an audience member asked the store’s founders what they’re doing now. Madell responded that he works for a Brooklyn music distributor (Secretly). “I did manage to find something that built on my background and the music I loved,” he said. Vanderloo, meanwhile, is working in various capacities at Trader Joe’s. While he enjoys the hustle and bustle of his gig there, and the opportunity to interact with people, it isn’t quite the same as Other Music. “I really do miss it quite a bit,” he said.
And we do too, but Other Music is a nice little time capsule and, more than anything, a reminder to remain inquisitive about new music (there are, after all, still mind-expanding record shops like Downtown Music Gallery). You can start by listening to songs from the soundtrack– by Black Dice, Arthur Russell, El-P, and others– via this playlist.
“Other Music” will have its final Tribeca screening on May 5 and will also screen May 4 and 5 at the Montclair Film Festival in New Jersey.